Home Page Our politicians should own up to their clear mistakes 03/10/11

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

All this good weather has been a bit rough on children, parents and teachers, who have just knuckled down to a new term after a summer holiday of the usual damp, changeable climate.

Coinciding with the season of the political party conferences, it has also been a bit frustrating for those who did not locate their get-togethers on the south coast. At least Labour were by the sea in Blackpool, but the Lib-Dems were in Liverpool and the poor old Tories are stuck in Manchester this week (although it is supposed to rain).

Youíd think they could have arranged it better. Those who read the tealeaves for them in return for vast salaries have failed again.

But that made me think how rarely one can actually hold politicians to account for exactly what they said by comparing it with exactly what has happened. In fact, itís so rare that, when it happens, it almost marks a sea-change in politics for a generation.

The most recent example has been the row over tuition fees. Many of the Lib-Dems actually stated directly, and even signed a petition, saying they would never agree to it, and then they did.

Itís not normally that cut and dried. But we had an example in Haverhill last week of events proving some politicians clearly wrong in a quite incontrovertible manner.

Does anybody remember Haverhill Representative Alliance (the HRA)?  In the early part of the Noughties they experienced a great swing towards them in the town council elections and took over briefly.

One of the most controversial issues they became involved with was a quite obsessive determination that there should not be a defibrillator provided at Haverhill Arts Centre.

I can remember reporting on meetings where this apparently minor issue became the centre of extraordinarily pedantic argument and some quite astonishing behaviour.

The town council had agreed a defibrillator should be provided and that staff at the arts centre should be trained to use it. Some HRA members were determined this should not happen and that the defibrillator should be located at the sports centre, because it was more likely to be needed there.

Anyone who has actually stood on a stage would be well aware that the stress levels involved in that are often far higher than those caused by energetic exercise, so the argument always seemed a bit spurious to me.

But there was also some previous history to bring to bear on the argument. To my knowledge two men had died from heart attacks in the main auditorium of the town hall during the previous 15-20 years.

On one occasion, I was present, because it was at a public meeting. It had to be sensible that life-saving equipment should be on hand in the building.

Thankfully, there was not the opportunity to prove the rights and wrongs of the argument at that time, but the town council went ahead with the decision.

How often the defibrillator has been used since, I donít know, because there is not always huge publicity surrounding a medical emergency inside a building, but last week there was a high-profile event involving the air ambulance landing on the car park behind the high street.

The training of the staff at the arts centre and the provision of equipment were clearly vital on this occasion, thus finally proving publicly the value of a decision made several years ago.

Civic leaders should bear in mind the occasions when they have been clearly right or clearly wrong. The fact that politicians in general donít admit their mistakes is one of the main reasons people donít trust them and therefore donít vote in elections.

The financial crash has forced some to come out and, reluctantly, admit they might have made ever such a tiny mistake at some far distant point. Well, thatís not good enough.

This doesnít mean Iím in favour of wholesale apology every time something goes wrong, because that just ends up being an easy way out for people in positions of responsibility. "Yes, Iíll hold my hand up for that, and Iím sorry, so letís move on,Ē is the frequent cry of inept but smooth-talking managers, who somehow survive unscathed.

What we all want to know is whether anything has been learned and whether they will be avoiding making the mistakes again. Somehow, one is rarely convinced of that by the contrition of politicians.

It will be very interesting to see what David Cameron has to say if the phone-hacking allegations against Andy Coulson, and what he knew or didnít know, and when, are actually proved.

In the case of Haverhill there are a lot of decisions that have been made in years gone by that should be apologised for. I suppose the biggest was in the 1960s when the railway was axed just as the town was expanding exponentially.

But there have been many since, right down to the current mess over town centre pedestrianisation and traffic flow. And I donít suppose anyone will be held to account directly for any of them.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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